On 13th October 1863 Irishwoman Margaret Martin of 84 Fourth Street, East Cambridge, Massachusetts applied for a widow’s pension. Her husband Michael, a private in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, had lost his life at the Battle of Chancellorsville on 3rd May that year. Margaret’s file demonstrates the range of information that can be found in these files. Contained within it is an extremely poignant letter from her husband, expressing his regret at enlisting, and his profound feelings of love for his wife. The file also reveals an interview with Margaret more than twenty years later, following a descent into alcohol abuse that had cost the emigrant her home, her children, and almost certainly was what eventually cost her life. It allows us a rare opportunity to hear in the first person from an Irishwoman who suffered from what was one of the most devastating illnesses to afflict 19th century America. (1)

Michael Martin was born into the Irish community of St. John, New Brunswick around the year 1833. On 15th November 1855, at the age of 22, he married 19-year-old Irish emigrant Margaret F. Mulligan in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Initially life seemed to go well for the young couple. Their first child, Ann Eliza, was born on 31st October 1856, with a second daughter, Catherine, arriving on 8th April 1860. The Census of that year found the family in Cambridge’s Third Ward, where Michael was employed as a journeyman carpenter. He spent the years prior to his enlistment working for Master Carpenter William J. Marvin, who like Michael had come south from Canada, being a native of Nova Scotia. They were part of a sizeable community from areas like New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in East Cambridge, which included Michael’s brother John and likely a number of other members of the immediate Martin family. (2)

East Cambridge in 1854, when the Martins lived there (Boston Public Library)

East Cambridge in 1854, when the Martins lived there (Boston Public Library)

Michael had been working for William Marvin for three years when, seemingly on impulse, he decided to enlist in the Union army. He took the decision while on his way to work on 1st July 1862, having met a recruiter on the street. He apparently made this decision without Margaret’s knowledge, and was quickly whisked off to initial training. It would seem there was more to this story than Michael revealed, but in anycase, the next time Margaret heard from him he was a private in Company I of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. Michael had enlisted under an alias, serving under his brother’s name of John Martin (his brother also served the Union during the war). Michael seems to have almost immediately regretted his decision. He wrote home to Margaret later that month, in a letter that highlighted both his misery and his realisation of his true feelings for his wife. (3)

Juley the 21 862

My dear wife I received your letter to day and I am glad you ar[e] well dear wife I listed the 3 of Juley and that day I went to work the officer met me on the street and sent me rit up to camp camron and would not let me stir untill the[y] sent me out here dear wife you cant tink ho[w] I suffer here I have to sleep on the bare grond wet al[l] day last week I had to sleep on the ground and it pouring raining all nit dear wife I have but ten minits to write and cant cant [sic.] half a nuf but the next letter I will tell you more dear wife when you write write [sic.] send me the childrens and your pictures an[d] a paper dear wife I would giv[e] all the world to see yous once more dear wife it is now I find out how I loved you and the longer I am am [sic.] a way the more I love you and dear wife I not onley loved you but I adored you but you never [k]new it your immige was ceared[?] on my hart and it is that love that leves me rare to to day

when you write direct your letter to John Martin Company I 2 Mass regment washington D C

Gen Banks Division

dear wife when you write let me no wheter you ar going to git the state helpe[?] I did not understand in your let[ter] whether you ar goying to git it or not dont for get the pictures no more at present

I am you[r] lovin husband un till deth John Martin

when you write dont forget the name

write to me as soon as yo[u] get this

dear wife I will sin[d] my pay to you as soon as I get it

J (4)

Margaret included this letter in her application as it demonstrated that her husband had served in the 2nd Massachusetts under an alias. It is unusual to come across a letter in the files which so strongly articulates a soldier’s feelings towards his loved one, and his profound sense of regret at enlisting. The second letter in the file was written as the Army of Potomac were about to embark on the Chancellorsville Campaign, in which Martin lost his life. In the letter he signed off as “M Martin” rather than under his alias, and that is the probable reason for its inclusion by Margaret.

Staffort corthouse

Virginey april 14 186[3]

dear wife I write you these few lines to let you know that I am in good healt at preasent thank god for it and I hope that this will find you and children in joying the same we ar[e] packing up to day for a long march and a towards richmond or northcartonia I dont no which

no more at present from you husband

M Martin (5)

The Battle of Chancellorsville (Kurz and Allison)

The Battle of Chancellorsville (Kurz and Allison)

Michael’s company officer wrote to Margaret the following month to inform her of her husband’s death. We will never know the impact it had on Margaret, and if it was a central factor in the problems that plagued her for the remainder of her life. Whatever the causal factors, she was far from the only Irish immigrant to turn to the bottle in an effort to escape the realities of their often difficult lives. Her drinking issues in the coming years resulted in multiple arrests, and by 1870 both her children had been removed from her custody– it is likely she never saw either of them again. The unfortunate woman spent her pension money on drinking “sprees” and became increasingly reliant on charity and almshouses for her support. Eventually the Court ordered a guardian, R.A. Duggan of Quincy, to be appointed to administer her pension for her. It was a dispute she had with Duggan in 1884 that led to the appointment of a Special Investigator to her case, and which led to the interview which provides us with her words in the first person. While Duggan claimed he had returned Margaret’s pension certificate to her in 1882, the Irishwoman claimed he had retained it, and was effectively stealing money from her. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the matter, both were interviewed by the pension bureau. On 1st July 1884 the investigator went to the Chardon Street Home in Boston to meet Margaret. The Home was intended to provide temporary accommodation for women and children. The resultant interview is reproduced in full below. (6)

Question: Why was there a guardian appointed for you?

Answer: Because I had got into the habit of drinking and the Court said I was wasting my money

Question: Don’t you drink now?

Answer: No Sir, it has been a year since I drank anything

Question: Has not Mr. Duggan as your guardian treated you right and acted honestly to you?

Answer: Well he gives me so little, quarters and ten cents, that I dont know how my money went

Question: Don’t he pay your board and buy you clothes?

Answer: No Sire. He never looks after me.

Question: Well what is your wish, another guardian appointed?

Answer: No I do not want another guardian I want to draw my money myself. I want my certificate.

Question: Have you ever been in the Station House?

Answer: Oh yes. I never used to wait for them to arrest me, but I’d go in there myself to raise “Ned.” Have been in No 2 a number of times.

Question: Where are your children?

Answer: They were taken away from me on account of my drinking. Have not seem them in 13 or 14 years.

Question: What has Duggan told you about your pension money?

Answer: He told me he had resigned a year ago last September. That he had settled up with the Judge and the Judge had allowed him to keep forty dollars for his services as guardian. He told me I was free now to draw my own money. A year ago last December I went to the Pension Office downstairs to draw my money and they told me Mr. Duggan had drawn it and they wont pay me now because the Pension Agent says Mr. Duggan is still my guardian and he cant pay me.

Question: Who has your Certificate?

Answer: Mr. Duggan, and I want it. (7)

The International School of Boston, formerly an Almshouse, where Margaret spent time (Photo by Rapaceone)

The International School of Boston, formerly an Almshouse, where Margaret spent time (Photo by Rapaceone)

Duggan claimed in his interview that he had delivered the pension certificate to Margaret on 28th July 1882, and had a signed receipt to prove it. The Special Investigator did note that Duggan had received a further five payments amounting to $120 after this date, but Duggan claimed he had been asked to do this by Margaret, and ultimately was able to produce receipts for them as well. In the end, the Investigator came to the conclusion that Duggan was a “man of good repute.” In contrast, the matron of the Chardon Street Home told him that Margaret was “totally unreliable” and despite the Irish emigrant’s claims to the contrary, during the interview the Investigator felt that “from her present appearance her habits still are those of a hard drinker.” He determined that she had received her certificate from Duggan, but that “owing to her loose habits she lost it.” The case exposed issues with how Civil War pensions were administered in Boston– it was not the first occasion where payments were being made without certificates being produced. The Supervising Examiner annotated the case file, opining that “it shows another instance of the laxity of the administration on the part of the Boston Pension Agency.” (8)

The balance of evidence presented does suggest that Margaret had failed to recover from her drinking problems. Just over a year after the investigation, Margaret’s guardian reported that the troubled woman had passed away. Those pension cases which were the subject of investigation are among the most valuable from a historical perspective. Many were initiated as a result of suspected fraud or due to extreme social issues, and resulted in interviews with a range of witnesses. They allow us to hear from working class Irish emigrants– people like Margaret– whose voices are otherwise beyond our reach. How different her life might have been if Michael had not enlisted on his way to work in 1862, or had he not fallen on the Chancellorsville battlefield in 1863, is impossible to determine. Undoubtedly though many thousands of Irish-Americans, be they veterans or surviving dependents, had to face down their own long-term personal battles as a consequence of the events of 1861-65. (9)

The "Down Hill Road", an 1878 image which highlighted the dangers of alcohol (Library of Congress)

The “Down Hill Road”, an 1878 image which highlighted the dangers of alcohol (Library of Congress)

(1) Martin Widow’s Certificate; (2) Martin Widow’s Certificate, 1860 U.S. Federal Census; (3) Martin Widow’s Certificate; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Martin Widow’s Certificate, Guide to the Temporary Home for Women and Children; (7) Martin Widow’s Certificate; (8) Ibid.; (9) Ibid.;

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

References & Further Reading

WC16416 Widow’s Certificate for Margaret Martin, Widow of Michael Martin, Company I, 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

1860 U.S. Federal Census, Cambridge Ward 3, Middlesex, Massachusetts.

1860 U.S. Federal Census, Cambridge Ward 2, Middlesex, Massachusetts.

City of Boston Archives and Records Management Division. Guide to the Temporary Home for Women and Children Records

Civil War Trust Battle of Chancellorsville Page.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.